Post Date Mar 16

Revisiting Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

We finally reached the end of our “Star Wars” journey tonight. After showing Nicolas the first five films in George Lucas’ saga in the order they were released, we wrapped up with “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” I hadn’t seen the finale since it first came out in 2005 and was surprised at how engrossing it was. In retrospect, I’d always lumped the prequels together as being inferior to Lucas’ original trilogy. And for the most part, they absolutely are. But going back and looking up my review of “Episode III,” it seems I gave it a rave.

Nic liked it too, by the way — he was dancing around in front of the television with a pretend light saber, trying to cut down Darth Sidious. “I want to watch another one,” he said once the credits rolled. Sorry, dude — we all have to wait for Episode VII. ‘Til then, enjoy.

20th Century Fox
PG-13 for sci-fi violence and some intense images.
Running time: 142 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

The Force is strong with “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” the sixth and final piece in George Lucas’ galactic saga, which represents a welcome return to the ideas and the spirit that made his original “Star Wars” a pop-culture juggernaut 28 years ago.

The circle is now complete, as Lucas’ characters are fond of saying, and much of the film’s joy comes from watching these familiar names and events fall into place.

It is enormously satisfying to see young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) teeter along the edge that separates good and evil, and to see what finally pushes the would-be Chosen One over to the dark side of the Force.

It’s a wonderful, small discovery when Anakin receives the name Darth Vader once he finally swears his allegiance to Chancellor Palpatine, who reveals himself here as Darth Sidious, a Sith master and the eventual evil Emperor. (And all the other words that ooze from Ian McDiarmid’s mouth leave you feeling so slimy, you’ll want to take a shower afterward.)

But the moment we’ve all been waiting for is one that simply must be experienced in a packed theater: when the mask goes on and the helmet comes down and Anakin takes his first raspy breath as Darth Vader in all his dark, gleaming glory. (You won’t hear anyone else breathing, it’s such an absorbing sight.)

The iconography is powerful to behold, especially when compared to the horrendously disappointing Episodes I and II. In retrospect, the first two “Star Wars” prequels seem even more useless, with their stilted dialogue and their numbing, CGI-infused clone battles.

Lucas wisely has placed the emphasis this time on elaborate lightsaber duels – between Anakin and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against the Sith lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and ultimately between Anakin and Obi-Wan themselves. Some of the biggest thrills come from tiny Yoda, the Jedi master who’s at the height of his powers here. He does as much damage with a well-chosen, structurally inverted phrase or the subtlest wrinkle of his round, green face as he does with a swing of his lightsaber. (And Yoda has mad skills.)

Lucas’ writing still clangs, though, especially during the exchanges between Anakin and his secret bride, Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), who announces in Episode III that she’s pregnant (with twins we’ve come to know as Luke and Leia in Episode IV, the original “Star Wars”).

“You are so beautiful,” Anakin dreamily tells Padme as she brushes her dark, flowing locks on a balcony in the moonlight.

“Only because I’m so in love,” Padme coos back to him.

Thankfully, Lucas also didn’t saddle her with the heavy headgear and distracting dresses she wore in Episodes I and II, or else she would barely be able to get up and move about the galaxy.

That love for Padme, though, is partly the inspiration for Anakin’s conversion. Not to give too much away, but he becomes convinced that Padme is in danger, and the only way to save her is through the powers that come with dark-side membership.

He’s actually just being manipulated by Palpatine/Darth Sidious, who wants to turn the Galactic Republic into his own Empire and sees him as a malleable apprentice, especially at a time when Anakin isn’t getting the respect and authority he craves from the Jedi Council.

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” Yoda warns Anakin, but it’s too late – and we know it’s too late, and that built-in expectation is much of what makes “Revenge of the Sith” so riveting.

It’s also a visually wondrous film, though. Lucas uses the digital technology to far greater advantage than he did in the first two prequels, which too often had the glossy, detached look of a video game. Crisp daylight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Padme’s apartment, and the cityscapes consist of silvery skyscrapers and golden sunsets. Even Chewbacca and his Wookiee buddies look lifelike as they scamper in battle across the beaches and jungles of the planet Kashyyyk.

Clearly, this is Lucas’ war protest movie _ Obi-Wan shoots a character down with a gun once his lightsaber is knocked away from him, and afterward sniffs, ”So uncivilized.” But it’s also, at its core, a soap opera. It always has been. Think of Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, ”I am your father,” during the heat of battle in ”The Empire Strikes Back.” Episode III features fast-paced parallel editing between two staples of daytime TV: a childbirth and a complicated operation.

But despite its drama and darkness, Lucas gives us some light moments, too. He slips in a glimpse of the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks at the very end, and although the big, goofy Gungan doesn’t say anything, his presence alone feels like Lucas’ last little dig at the naysayers – and a reminder with this final farewell that, nearly 30 years later, he’s still doing it his way.

Post Date Mar 15

Revisiting Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones

star wars episode ii attack of the clones watch trailorSo my kid is super into the “Star Wars” movies these days. This was a good thing when we were watching the first trilogy — a thrill to see these iconic films through his 4-year-old eyes — but has proven to be an endurance test now that we’re slogging through the prequels. I gave in and let Nicolas watch “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” because he’s so interested in Darth Maul (I don’t even want to know what that means) but then he wanted to watch “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” He fell asleep within the first 10 minutes, which inspired me to go back and recall how I reacted to it when it came out back in 2002. Here’s my original review. Enjoy reading it, I hope you will.

20th Century Fox
Rated PG for sustained sequences of sci-fi/action violence.
Running time: 132 minutes.

“The dark side clouds everything,’’ Yoda warns in the fifth installment of the “Star Wars’’ series. He might as well have been talking about George Lucas’ thinking.

“Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’’ is better than the 1999 prequel, “Episode I – The Phantom Menace.’’ Anything had to be. But Lucas, as writer-director-czar, still fails to recapture the fun and adventure that infused the original trilogy. A bigger disappointment, though, is how derivative the movie is. Once hailed as the creative genius of our generation, Lucas has been copied so many times, he now seems obsolete, and ends up copying from himself.

As in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back’’ — the best film in the series — “Clones’’ features an asteroid storm, lumbering mechanical contraptions and a key character who loses a limb in a light saber duel. But Lucas also steals identifiable, sometimes iconic imagery from at least a half-dozen other movies: the nightmarish cityscape of “Blade Runner’’; the Coliseum showdown of “Gladiator’’; the robotic gadgetry of “Robocop’’; the open helicopter flight of “Apocalypse Now’’ and “Platoon’’; and a conveyor belt sequence straight out of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

The premise is basically just “The Bodyguard,’’ with light sabers. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), former child queen of Naboo, is the target of an assassination attempt, and Jedi-in-training Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who’s loved her from afar for the past decade, is assigned to protect her. Meanwhile, Anakin’s mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), searches for her attacker and discovers the development of an army of clones; this is where the story loses focus. Eventually, he reteams with Anakin and Amidala to fight Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a former Jedi knight who’s turned evil and wants to take over the galaxy because … who knows? He just does. That’s how indiscernible the plot and motivations are.

“Clones’’ samples almost as obviously as “Shrek,’’ but not to the point of parody like “Scary Movie.’’ Lucas does it often enough, though, that it makes me wonder whether he recognized the popularity of those movies and wanted a bit of the same. Such pop culture amalgamations have become enormously successful because they give us what we already know; they make us feel comfortable because we’re in on the joke. With “Phantom Menace,’’ Lucas created a truly original world, and he was universally derided for it (even though the movie made $431 million).

He’ll deny it, but he clearly listened to the complaints about “Phantom Menace’’ and adapted to please the audience for “Clones.’’ Jar Jar Binks was annoying and we saw too much of him last time; here, he’s been toned down and only appears in a few scenes. Amidala’s Kabuki makeup and Vegas showgirl-style headdresses were too distracting; here, her look is pretty and feminine. Conspicuously, she’s also lost the faux British accent she spoke with as queen; now, she giggles like a school-girl when she talks about a boy she had a crush on, with “dark curly hair and dreamy eyes.’’

But Portman and Christensen are so bland together, they’re the Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — good-looking and powerful, but torn by their individual ambitions. Their love scenes are so devoid of romantic sparks, you’d never know that their coupling in Episode III produces Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The all-digital effects of “Clones’’ are just as ineffective; the backgrounds look like the cartoons that they are. A scene in which Amidala and Anakin frolic in a meadow has such a hyperreal pastoral quality, it looks like a commercial for a feminine hygiene product.

The special effects from the original “Star Wars’’ may seem cheesy 25 years later, but they had a charm and a substance that’s missing here. The digital technology does allow for a miraculous scene involving a surprisingly agile Yoda; it’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lifeless film. Other bright spots are unintentional — they’re the result of laugh-out-loud bad dialogue. A protracted battle scene toward the end between clones and droids is especially draggy; it’s no fun watching mechanical soldiers zapping each other with lasers. A reddish dust that swirls around them makes it impossible to tell who’s shooting whom; maybe that’s Lucas’ point, but it renders the scene inaccessible.

“Star Wars’’ geeks, however, will be happy to see a few key pieces of the saga fitting into place: the initial stirrings of anger that will turn Anakin into Darth Vader; the origin of bounty hunter Boba Fett; the first appearance of Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. As Obi-Wan, McGregor truly comes into his own this time, practically channeling Alec Guinness in his demeanor and the cadence of his speech. And, admittedly, the ritual itself holds some allure. It’s still a rush to sit in a packed theater (equipped with THX, naturally) when that first blast of John Williams’ fanfare sounds. Then you have to endure the rest of the movie.

Post Date Jan 8

Revisiting Mindy Kaling & Matt & Ben

Mindy Kaling Elle Magazine Cover

The insanely likable and talented Mindy Kaling has been at the center of debate lately because of her ELLE magazine cover — or rather, because of what we don’t see of her: any part of her body from the chest down. While the other actresses (Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler and Allison Williams) adorning various versions of the magazine’s Women in TV issue appear in full-length poses, Kaling’s shot is more of a close-up.

While it’s a gorgeous and sultry black-and-white photograph of “The Mindy Project” creator and star, it’s also provoked accusations that the magazine is perpetuating the mythology of the impossibly thin celebrity. (Kaling herself is savvy enough to defuse the tension on her Twitter feed, joking: “I love my @ELLEmagazine cover. It made me feel glamorous & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen dates with me.”)

The whole discussion got me thinking about the thoroughly enjoyable interview I did with Kaling and her longtime friend, Brenda Withers, more than a decade ago when they were starring in an off-Broadway play they’d also written called “Matt & Ben.” In it, they play versions of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck around the time the duo wrote their Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting” script. The play was a total hoot, as was my chat with Kaling and Withers. Here’s a look back at my August 2003 article.


Brenda Withers (L) and Mindy Kaling as Matt & Ben, respectively.

“Matt & Ben”: Play depicts life of Damon, Affleck before they were famous


NEW YORK — Say the names Matt and Ben and even people who don’t subsist on a steady diet of celebrity gossip will probably know you’re talking about Damon and Affleck.

That’s what the stars of “Matt & Ben” have found at sold-out performances of their off-Broadway play.

Mixing fact, fiction and tabloid fodder, the play takes place in the mid-1990s — long before Affleck’s highly publicized engagement to Jennifer Lopez — when he and Damon were struggling actors and writers.

The main joke is that the script for “Good Will Hunting” — which co-starred the longtime friends and earned them a screenwriting Oscar in 1998 — literally falls from the ceiling of Affleck’s apartment, the decor of which can best be described as frat-boy chic.

Then there’s the actors portraying them — actresses actually.

Brenda Withers plays Damon and Mindy Kaling plays Affleck. That they’re women in drag is only part of the conceit (though they’re both so good, you forget the gender bend after a while). In another twist, Withers is tall and rangy like Affleck while Kaling is short and compact like Damon — and she’s of Indian descent.

“The point of it was not to do, like, an ‘SNL’ kind of sketch. Obviously, we can’t play these characters with any kind of accuracy,” said Kaling, 24. “I’m, like, an Indian girl.”

“Matt & Ben” affectionately skewers the actors for their oft-reported personas: that Damon, star of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” is the serious actor of the two and that Affleck, who’s made blockbusters (“Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon”) and bombs (“Gigli”), merely coasts on his looks and personality.

But the actresses said they can relate to them because they’re also best friends who collaborated on a script. (“Matt & Ben” originally appeared at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival.)

Yet Withers, 25, acknowledged with a laugh: “I still feel like we really have no idea who they are. A lot of what went into the characters was our process, our situation — being friends and writing together.”

People think they know Damon and Affleck, though, because of the abundance of media coverage they receive.

“They’re different enough it seems that you think, like, ‘Oh, I have so much more in common with one or the other,’ even if you don’t know anything about them,” Kaling said. “It’s funny, when we first thought of the title we thought: ‘Will people actually get it?”‘

People did, which often prompts the question — are you a Matt girl or a Ben girl? — which the actresses pondered recently over an egg salad sandwich (for Withers) and a liverwurst sandwich (for Kaling) at a Midtown theater hangout.

“I think both of us are sort of constantly fighting over Matt in our, like, made-up world where they would be having to choose between us,” Kaling said. “Ben is, like, tall and strapping. Matt’s cerebral.”

“I …, ” Withers hesitated. “I mean, yeah, I love Matt.”

“Brenda’s a Casey girl,” Kaling joked, referring to Affleck’s younger brother, Casey Affleck, who had a small role in “Good Will Hunting” and whose photo hangs on the wall of the “Matt & Ben” set.

“I think it goes back and forth,” Withers said.

One thing the women can agree on: They’d both be mortified if Damon and Affleck ever showed up for a performance.

“I hope if they come they come very quietly and don’t tell us,” Withers said.

It looks like they have nothing to worry about, even though there’s talk of extending the play past its six-week run scheduled to end Sept. 6. Damon’s publicist didn’t return a phone call for comment about the play; Affleck’s publicist, Ken Sunshine, said the actor knows about it but hasn’t seen it.

“We have no thoughts or reactions. I wouldn’t bet on them showing up,” Sunshine said. “I think, frankly, we’re trying not to emphasize the circus atmosphere surrounding his celebrity right now.”

Post Date Nov 23

Revisiting The Hunger Games

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games," opening on Friday, March 23, 2012.  (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)I swear, I meant to get my act together today and write a review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Really, I did. But then I had back-to-back, 4-year-old birthday parties to attend. One of them featured wine (because those are the kinds of mommy friends I have). You know how these things go.

So! For now, I wanted to revisit my review of the original “Hunger Games” from last year. I actually read the book in preparation for this one because it was such a phenomenon, and I thought it would be good to walk in with a vague clue as to why this story mattered culturally. I was pleasantly surprised — and gripped with tension. So here you go: Katniss v1.0. If you feel like coming back Sunday, I look forward to sharing some thoughts with you on the sequel — which I liked even better.

Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens.
Running time: 142 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Recently, I made the mistake of joking on Twitter about the possibility of a Team Peeta vs. Team Gale dynamic, referring to the two young men who hold special places in the heart of Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine of “The Hunger Games.”

Some people played along but many were appalled at the very idea of something as cliched and flimsy as a love triangle defining the young woman they’ve come to admire so fiercely from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trio of novels, the first adaptation of which makes its way to the screen this weekend amid great fervor and expectation.

I learned very quickly: These people do not mess around when it comes to Katniss.

Those same fans should be thoroughly satisfied with the faithfulness of Gary Ross’ film, with its propulsive nature and vivid imagery: a mix of decadent costumes and architecture and harsh, unforgiving exteriors. At its center is Jennifer Lawrence, an ideal choice to play this strong, independent young woman. Those who saw her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” already were aware of her startling screen presence — her natural beauty, instincts and maturity beyond her years. And yet there’s a youthful energy and even a vulnerability that make her relatable to the core, target audience of female fans. Lawrence is endlessly watchable, and she better be, since she’s in nearly every single shot of Ross’ film.

And speaking of Ross, he may seem an unlikely choice to direct a movie about a futuristic, fascist world in which teenagers must fight each other to the death in an exploitative display of national loyalty and pride. He is, after all, the man behind such clever, charming and uplifting films as “Dave,” ”Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit.” But those movies, while based on high-concept premises, ultimately had pointed things to say about politics and society. The methodology of “The Hunger Games” may be more complicated but its darkly satirical message is unmistakable.

The script adheres rather closely to Collins’ novel — no surprise there since she co-wrote it with Ross and Billy Ray — although it does truncate some of the subplots that give the book its greatest emotional heft as well as soften the brutal violence of the games themselves, ostensibly in the name of securing a PG-13 rating. Still, the makers of “The Hunger Games” have managed the difficult feat of crafting a film that feels both epic and intimate at once.

A post-apocalyptic version of North America has been divided into 12 districts. Every year, a teenage boy and girl from each are selected randomly at the “Reaping” and sent to the opulent, art deco Capitol, where they’re made over, trained and primed to fight each other until one is left standing in the sprawling arena. Gamesmakers manipulate their surroundings, “Truman Show”-style; Wes Bentley, sporting fiendish facial hair, functions as a sadistic version of Christof in a control room on high.

Every minute of competition is breathlessly broadcast to the nation, with viewers rooting for and betting on their favorites; having a sympathetic back story is crucial, and similarities to reality shows like “Survivor” or even “American Idol” are clearly intended. Even the program’s host (Stanley Tucci in an upswept blue ‘do) has a huge personality but isn’t so outlandish that you couldn’t image him as the face of some top-rated primetime game show.

Katniss lives with her widowed mother and beloved younger sister, Prim, in the distant District 12, known for its poverty and mining — a place visually reminiscent of the Ozarks of “Winter’s Bone.” An expert hunter with a bow and arrow, she spends her days seeking food for her family in the forest with her best friend, the hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Some of the strongest moments in “The Hunger Games” are not the big action sequences, where the effects tend to look a bit cheesy, but rather the quieter exchanges like the ones Lawrence and Hemsworth effortlessly share.

But when Prim’s name is called at the Reaping, Katniss springs into action to volunteer instead. This is one of those scenes in which you don’t need to have read the book to feel emotionally engaged; the drama and the tears feel real, and they’re not overplayed. Katniss’ male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s sweet but bland son. Together they’re to receive mentoring from the frequently inebriated Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the last winner from District 12; the character’s rough edges have been buffed significantly and it’s not an improvement. Elizabeth Banks is nearly unrecognizable as Effie, their garish, perky escort. They also undergo mandated makeovers from their stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz in an inspired bit of casting — he and Lawrence have a lovely rapport together).

There’s never any question as to whether Katniss will win — there are two more books waiting to be made into movies after this one — so the challenge comes from maintaining a sense of tension and immersion in this dystopian world as competitors drop off one by one, which Ross and Co. achieve. “The Hunger Games” runs nearly two and a half hours in length but is the rare film that never drags and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It could keep running as long as Katniss does, and we’d want to be right there every heart-pounding step of the way.

Post Date Oct 29

Revisiting Five Most — Texas Movies

So I just got back in town after visiting Dallas for my 20-year reunion at Southern Methodist University. I would have posted something over the weekend, but I was too busy cramming queso and Shiner Bock into my grill. Apologies for the absence.

But being there reminded me of a Five Most list I put together before the South by Southwest film festival last year about great movies set in Texas. I could have picked 10 films set in the Lone Star State and not even scratched the surface — which is only fitting, given that it’s like a whole ‘nother country and whatnot. Anyway, hope you enjoy. And Go Mustangs.

5 great films set in Texas


— “The Last Picture Show” (1971): Everything about this coming-of-age drama just oozes Texas. Peter Bogdanovich, working from the novel by Larry McMurtry (with whom he co-wrote the script), creates a detailed, lived-in sense of place. High school football, cars, girls, the local movie house — sure, these things mattered elsewhere in the early 1950s. But the sense of lonely, small-town West Texas life depicted here is just so vivid, with its leisurely pace and big skies. Young Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms have an easy chemistry as high school seniors and best friends, and Cybill Shepherd couldn’t possibly be more vibrantly beautiful as the girl they both adore. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including best picture), it won two: for supporting actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

— “No Country for Old Men” (2007): Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film, “Blood Simple,” also could have qualified here. But for me, this crime thriller along the Rio Grande is their masterpiece — my pick for the best movie of the 2000’s and one of the five films I selected on our “Movies That Made Us Critics” episode of “Ebert Presents At the Movies.” Working with their usual cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the Coens present a haunting, beautifully bleak landscape. They’ve crafted a contemporary Western in which you can feel the heat of the baking sun and the scratch of scrub brush. The dialogue (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) is just dead-on in its cadence, color and specificity. And Tommy Lee Jones, who was born and raised in the state, is Texas personified as an aging small-town sheriff on the hunt for a killer. “No Country” won four Oscars including best picture.

— “Friday Night Lights” (2004): Peter Berg’s film completely gets the obsession with high school football in Texas. Then again, he had great source material from which to work: H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s excellent 1990 best-seller of the same name, which captured the fact that this truly is a way of life with eloquence and evocative detail. Literally every store shuts down on Friday nights and the 20,000 people packing into the stadium all have some opinion on how the coach (Billy Bob Thornton) should run the team. This particular team is the Permian High School Panthers in the West Texas city of Odessa, which Berg depicts in stripped-down and bleached-out fashion, making the already parched landscape of oil fields and dust seem even more harsh and lonesome.

— “Slacker” (1991): This movie only could have been made in Austin. It captured a specific kind of youth culture in a specific place and time — when Austin was still weird — and it played a crucial role in the rise of independent cinema in the early 1990s. This early offering from Texas native Richard Linklater, a director who’s become synonymous with Austin’s filmmaking scene (alongside Robert Rodriguez), is a virtually plotless amble around the state’s capital and home of the University of Texas. The seeds for Linklater’s talky, philosophical oeuvre are clearly being planted here. Characters and story strands come and go casually: a couple of guys analyzing “Scooby-Doo” over beers, a young man (Linklater himself) postulating about fate in a cab, a woman carrying a jar that she claims contains Madonna’s pap smear. Nothing happens and everything happens and it’s hypnotically funny.

— “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974): The original, of course — with chain saw as two words, not one — and not the 2003 remake or the even more needless 2006 origin story. One of the earliest films from Austin native and horror master Tobe Hooper, this became hugely influential on the genre, with its grainy, B-movie visuals and slow, silent suspense. And it’s still as frightening today as it was back then. You know the story: Five friends on a road trip fall victim to a family of cannibalistic slaughterhouse workers, led by the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. Shot in Austin and nearby towns, it provides a sense of isolation that feels peculiarly Texan; the state is so vast that you can imagine anything happening in its many remote pockets. And, of course, there’s all that delicious barbecue.

Post Date Oct 1

Revisiting The Croods

the croods 01.jpg

We’re going to dig deep into the archives — all the way back to March — for this review of “The Croods,” which is out on DVD today. This is one of the first films that I clearly recall Nicolas recognizing from the posters and billboards long before we actually saw it. And then after I took him to a screening, all he could say afterward was: “Dun-dun-DUN!” the catchphrase of the adorable, furry creature known as Belt.

Ah, the power of marketing.

Anyway, here’s my review of “The Croods.” Hope it helps as you ponder your DVD options this week.

DreamWorks Animation
PG for some scary action.
Running time: 92 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Cavemen – they’re just like us! – or so “The Croods” seems to be saying with its familiar mix of generational clashes, coming-of-age milestones and generally relatable laughs.

The animated adventure features a strong, star-studded cast and dazzles visually in wondrously colorful, vibrant 3-D, but the script doesn’t pop off the screen quite so effectively. The overly facile message here is: Trying new things is good. It’s a useful notion for kids in the crowd to chew on, but their older companions may be longing for something more substantive. Still, “The Croods” is both brisk and beautiful, and should be sufficiently entertaining for family audiences for whom few such options exist these days.

“The Croods” might be especially resonant with young female viewers, with a strong, resourceful teenage girl at its center named Eep (voiced by Emma Stone in her usual charming rasp). It’s the prehistoric era, and while the rest of Eep’s family prefers the comforting safety of hiding fearfully inside a cave, with only sporadic outings for group hunts, she longs to see what’s outside those stone walls.

Her dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage), is especially protective, neurotically worrying about every possible unknown and urging the same sort of apprehension in everyone else, including his supportive wife, Ugga (an underused Catherine Keener), and doltish 9-year-old son, Thunk (Clark Duke). (“Never not be afraid,” is one of dad’s favorite sayings.) There’s also a sharp-toothed Tasmanian devil of a baby named Sandy and Grug’s mother-in-law, voiced in reliably sassy fashion by Cloris Leachman. The gags that depict her as a disapproving nag are more than a bit stale; if there’s any heart-tugging or even vaguely engaging bond here, it’s the father-daughter one between Grug and Eep.

One day, Eep dares to escape while everyone else is sleeping and meets up with the hottest (and only) guy she’s ever seen. Conveniently, he’s named Guy, and he’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds. He has a furry, impossibly cute companion named Belt who holds up his pants (kids will dig this tiny scene-stealer). But he also astonishes her with something she’s never seen before called fire. Guy warns that the world is ending, and that she should come with him if she wants to live. When her family’s cave is destroyed, they reluctantly realize they must all go with Guy. This sets up: a) some basic, tried-and-true road trip jokes and b) a blossoming romance between Guy and Eep, which dad naturally tries to stifle.

The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking from co-writers and directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco (with John Cleese sharing a story-by credit, having been a part of early drafts of the script), and the plot feels too repetitive with the Croods encountering one unexplored terrain after another and responding in predictable ways.

But the oohs, ahhs and scattered laughs come from the various creatures the Croods discover along their journey, including the hungry, hot-pink piranha birds, the upside-down pear bears and the fearsome bear owls. Much of the lush landscape and vivid details feel as if they were taken directly from “Avatar,” and a similar sense of wonder propels these stronger segments. The lighting can indeed be magical, so it’s no surprise that we are urged over and over again to step into it.

Post Date Sep 11

Revisiting Sept. 11 in Film

I woke up this morning, like so many people around the world, thinking about New York on Sept. 11, 2001. And I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, examining how the twin towers had been depicted in film.

Discussing how to be respectful almost seems moot at this point. Blockbusters like “Man of Steel” show strangers grabbing each others’ hands and scurrying through the streets, trying to dodge giant chunks of falling buildings, all for the sake of summer thrills. But for many years, finding the right tone was a challenge. Here’s a look back.

Twin towers erased from some films after 9/11

But some filmmakers, like Spike Lee, wouldn’t dream of editing out the iconic buildings


On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in New York, covering entertainment and reviewing films for The Associated Press. I had a typically random, frivolous day planned: a screening of “The Glass House”; an interview with Carson Daly; and a hair appointment to get my highlights touched up.

None of that happened.

But I’ll never forget the title of the movie that was in my calendar that day, a thriller starring Leelee Sobieski. For many of us critics, “The Glass House” ended up being the first movie we saw once we struggled to return to reality after the attacks, and its manufactured scares seemed so cheap and crass compared to the real horrors we’d all just witnessed.

Approaching entertainment in general, and movies specifically — especially those set and shot in New York with images of the twin towers — was a tricky proposition in the weeks and months following 9/11. There was, of course, the broader question: When is it appropriate to enjoy ourselves again? But studios debated how to be respectful in releasing films that featured images of those iconic, fallen buildings. They wanted to strike the right tone, but there didn’t seem to be a right answer.

The twin towers were so instantly recognizable, so majestic and evocative. In a movie such as “Working Girl,” they’re a beacon of promise; in the classic poster for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” they even form the letter H. Do you eradicate them entirely to avoid upsetting the audience? Or do you leave them in, because they existed when the film was being made?

“Glitter” is probably best-known now as a laughably self-serving star vehicle for Mariah Carey. But it happened to come out just 10 days after the terrorist attacks, and included a couple of shots in which the twin towers are visible in the background. At a screening in a Times Square multiplex, those images drew the only cheers and applause.

Then there was the comedy “Zoolander,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller, which came out Sept. 28. The towers were erased from the finished print, which was jarring. A scene in which Derek Zoolander gives the eulogy at a funeral for his male model roommates, who die in a gasoline explosion inexplicably played for laughs, also struck an awkward note, especially with the New York City skyscrapers gleaming behind the cemetery.

The romantic comedy “Serendipity,” starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was released less than a month after 9/11, but it takes place in a Manhattan that is so idyllic, so romantic, it probably never existed. Shots of the World Trade Center in a version that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival were excised after the attacks for maximum movie-going happiness.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage” was postponed from an October 2001 release to the following February; even though it takes place in Los Angeles, it’s about a terrorist plot to blow up buildings. It was the most high-profile example of Hollywood’s attempt to be sensitive, even though “Collateral Damage” was, in retrospect, just another big, loud, dumb Schwarzenegger movie.

But as time went on, filmmakers began feeling their way around the tragedy with what appeared to be a bit more comfort and confidence. The police drama “City by the Sea,” starring Robert De Niro and James Franco, came out on Sept. 6, 2002. It had been filmed all over New York City in early 2001 and contains several prominent images of the World Trade Center towers. This struck a somber chord upon the one-year anniversary of the attacks, a time when the city collectively was on edge once more, and sent a ripple through the screening I attended. Still, I was glad to see the towers remain in the film, because that was an accurate reflection of what the city looked like during production.

A few months later, we had “25th Hour,” one of my favorite movies of that year and one of Spike Lee’s best. Naturally, being a filmmaker who personifies New York, Lee wouldn’t dream of avoiding the attacks. His unflinching title sequence focuses on the downtown skyline as it appeared around the one-year anniversary, with two beams of light stretching skyward from the spot where the towers had stood.

Later, Edward Norton’s character visits his father at the bar he owns in Staten Island — a firefighter hangout with memorials on the walls to the men who died. And Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman have a long conversation in front of a picture window in Pepper’s high-rise apartment, which overlooks ground zero. Hoffman asks whether Pepper plans to move, since the air quality downtown is so bad.

“(Bleep) that, man,” Pepper responds. “Bin Laden could drop in next door — I ain’t movin’.”

Five years after the attacks, Oliver Stone approached the towers head-on with “World Trade Center,” starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as a pair of Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed towers. The prevailing wisdom was that Stone would inject some pointed political perspective in depicting this tragedy; instead, he offered an exceptionally crafted, strongly acted, high-end made-for-TV movie. It’s visceral and intense, exceedingly faithful in its depiction of the fear and chaos, the ash and smoke that enveloped New York that day.

Eventually, the buildings again became a welcome sight. James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008) traces tightrope-walker Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire act between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

The film is hugely engrossing, but it also harkens to a simpler, more innocent time. A skywalk such as the one Petit pulled off would be impossible today; security is too tight and too pervasive in every segment of our daily lives. And that’s because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001 — a date that never arises in “Man on Wire” because Marsh wisely realizes he doesn’t need to mention it. The absence of the towers — and the reason for their absence — is implicit throughout the film, which adds a level of unspoken yet inescapable poignancy.

Post Date Sep 1

Revisiting Frost/Nixon

Frost/ Nixon

David Frost’s death Saturday night at 74 inspired me to revisit my review of “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s riveting account of the British broadcaster’s interviews with Richard Nixon after the former president resigned in disgrace. The 2008 film was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture and best actor for Frank Langella’s intense and disturbing turn as Nixon (but, oddly, no nomination for Michael Sheen as Frost). Still, the film remains Howard’s best. Here’s a look back.

Universal Pictures
Rated R for some language.
Running time: 122 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

“No holds barred,” Richard Nixon urges to David Frost as the two prepare to sit down for a series of interviews in 1977.

As “Frost/Nixon” powerfully reveals, that statement contains equal parts promise and threat from both the disgraced figure on screen and the actor playing him.

Frank Langella is positively formidable as the former president, a skilled manipulator under optimal circumstances whose desperate desire for rehabilitation makes him extra dangerous.

Langella isn’t doing a dead-on impression, which is preferable; Nixon’s quirks have been imitated so frequently and poorly, such an approach risks lapsing into caricature. Rather, he has internalized a volatile combination of inferiority, awkwardness, quick wit and a hunger for power. He loses himself in the role with rumbles and growls, with a hunched carriage and the slightest lift of the eyebrows.

Langella and Michael Sheen, also excellent as the breezy British TV personality Frost, reprise the parts they originated in Peter Morgan’s Tony Award-winning stage production. But you never feel like you’re watching a play on film: The way Morgan has opened up the proceedings in his screenplay feels organic under the direction of Ron Howard, who’s crafted his finest film yet, and one of the year’s best.

“Frost/Nixon” is talky and weighty as it digs into the details of Vietnam and Watergate, but it moves along with a fluidity that keeps it constantly engaging. Morgan’s script also contains a healthy amount of dark humor, mostly the result of something crass or inappropriate Nixon has said. Good thing, too, because the tension starts percolating early and only grows.

Upon seeing the image of Nixon smiling eerily as he boards a helicopter after resigning the presidency, Frost stands in front of a television transfixed. Hoping to lose the perception that he’s a lightweight and gain some credibility _ or rather, achieve fame in America _ he approaches Nixon for an interview and promises money he doesn’t have.

Sheen is doing something so subtle here, and as in his insightful work as Tony Blair in Morgan’s “The Queen,” he’s likely to get upstaged, unfortunately. All his Frost wants is to be liked, but he strives for that with the slightest obsequiousness. Critics may mistake his playboy demeanor for arrogance, but it truly seems to spring from longing.

The former president, meanwhile, hopes to use the opportunity to return to public life among the East Coast elite: He’s bored with retirement and feels humiliated droning on for banquet crowds for cash. He wants an interviewer with heft, but he’ll take the $600,000 his agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), has secured by saying yes to Frost.

And so they face each other for four extended interviews, which comprise the film’s second hour. Frost has gotten help cramming for this exam from British TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), veteran journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author and Nixon critic James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Rebecca Hall provides moral support as the sultry socialite Frost picked up in first class while flying to the United States.

In Nixon’s corner are loyalists including the fierce strategist Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and, amusingly, a young Diane Sawyer. Performances from the chief supporting players are uniformly excellent, especially from Platt and Rockwell, whose characters rib each other and share a disdain of Frost’s celebrity.

But Zelnick puts it best when he calls Frost “the most unlikely white knight … but a man who had one big advantage over all of us. He understood television.” And television exposed both Frost and Nixon for their true natures _ for better and for worse.

Post Date Aug 26

Revisiting Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert

After the debacle that was Miley Cyrus’ performance at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, I felt the need to revisit my review of her 2008 3-D movie, “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” I remember hoping back then, when she was only 15, that she’d avoid the madness that plagues so many child stars as they make the transition to adulthood.

No such luck, apparently.

Anyway, here’s a look back at a gentler, simpler time when she was just bein’ Miley, and not trying so hard to shock us. Although I suppose I should thank her for introducing me to the concept of “twerking.” Enjoy …

Walt Disney Pictures
Rated G.
Running time: 74 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

As an adult sitting through the 3-D Hannah Montana concert film, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed — but not by the piercing screech of thousands of frantic 9-year-olds, the crisp digital imagery or the catchiness of the Disney star’s peppy tunes.

Rather, the sensation is one of longing: You wish desperately for Miley Cyrus, the singing, dancing, songwriting, trendsetting dynamo, to avoid turning into Britney Spears. She’s insanely likable and talented, with poise and presence beyond her years. It’s all out there in front of her, and watching the 15-year-old on stage and behind the scenes, you just pray that she’ll turn out all right and not get swept away by the insanity of pop-star celebrity.

Of course, the tween girls for whom “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert” was intended won’t be thinking about this. They’ll just be giddy to feel so close to their idol.

With the three-dimensional effects, it feels as if Cyrus is walking right up you on the catwalk, her perky entourage of backup dancers in tow. One trick — in which she bounces a drumstick on the floor and sends it flying toward the camera — might just make you flinch.

Little girls will be happy to hear the “Hannah Montana” star perform their favorite songs and thrilled to catch a peek of the real Miley backstage — although the moments are carefully chosen to maintain her well-crafted wholesome image.

Watching her interact with her country-singer dad is entertaining, though, simply because they play off each other so easily. And you have to give Billy Ray Cyrus credit for showing a sense of humor about his place on the food chain — at one point, he jokes to her about how he’s played every Indian reservation casino from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But certainly the show is the thing, and Cyrus — both as herself and as her blond-tressed, television alter ego — runs through all those songs that have been stuck in your head for months, since your kids probably play them nonstop. They include “We Got the Party,” “Nobody’s Perfect” and, of course, “The Best of Both Worlds.” Those nonthreatening Jonas Brothers — Nick, Joe and Kevin — come out for a few songs, too. And if you’re really paying attention, you can catch the moment when Cyrus dashes off stage and is replaced briefly by a body double to buy time for a wardrobe change — which caused a tizzy on the Internet but was a total non-story from the get-go.

Once the movie (and the ringing in your ears) stops, though, it’s obvious why Cyrus has become such a phenomenon. She’s pretty and stylish but never a mean girl; energetic and popular but not conceited. She makes it easy to imagine what it would be like to be friends with her — or at least dress like her. Which you can do because, you know, there’s also a Hannah Montana clothing line.